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The Caveman's Valentine   B-

Universal Focus

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Writer: George Dawes Green (based on his novel)
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Colm Feore, Ann Magnuson, Aunjanue Ellis, Tamara Tunie, Anthony Michael Hall, Damir Andrei, Rodney Eastman.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

You could spin an entire series out of Kasi Lemmons' The Caveman's Valentine. Call it Schizo-Detective Stories. Every week, affable homeless person and former classical concert pianist Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson), also known as the Caveman, emerges from his Central Park cave dwelling to sleuth out street justice. All the while, he rants and raves about the distorted radio signals he's picking up from the top of the Chrysler Building. This New York landmark, as seen from his distorted mind's eye, is as colorfully lit up as an alien spaceship. With every passing episode, he draws steadily closer to his unseen adversary, Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant. This Moriarty to his Sherlock Holmes controls the international banking system in his wicked plot to take over the world. Meanwhile, old Romulus inadvertently stumbles upon dead junkies, sinister drug dealers, and other assorted villains in his travels. Through luck, pluck, and virtue, he foils their plans every time. Maybe.

In her follow-up to the critically acclaimed Eve's Bayou, Lemmons again teams with charismatic leading man and co-producer Jackson. That's right, baby. Shaft's back, but he's trading in movie star divadom for bona fide acting chops. With tufts of gray beard covering his angry mouth, natty dreadlocks hanging down his shoulders, Jackson stakes out his loopy wild man turf. That's right, he shouts, spits, curses at the sky, and cringes at beams of green or white light. Never a dull moment with him, is there? Attuned to the "magic realism" of Lemmons' design, Jackson comfortably overacts design. He often manages to salvage the purple prose of George Dawes Green's adaptation from his best-selling novel.

One miserably cold night, Caveman Romulus receives a bizarre transmission on his busted, unplugged television. This fuzzy news footage indicates that a murder is committed right outside his humble dwelling. Sure enough, when he takes his morning piss, he discovers the frozen corpse of a young hustler up in a tree. Thinking that he finally has proof that Stuyvesant is preying on the street people, he immediately phones his daughter, Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis, A Map of the World), who happens to be a streetwise uniform cop.

The police would prefer to write it off as drug related, having bigger fish to fry. Romulus, naturally, knows better. The dead boy's doped-up buddy (Rodney Eastman) spins an elaborate tale to Rom about how several street kids have been manipulated, lured in, and psychologically tortured by a Larry Clark style photographer (impeccably played by Canadian actor Colm Feore). He used them as models for his tormented angel paintings, then tossed them into the trash. Romulus decides to investigate, but before he can snoop around in the artist's upstate loft during a publicized soiree, he needs a new suit of clothes and a shave. Cue the upscale Six Degrees of Separation "guilty white boy" businessman (Anthony Michael Hall, having a blast) who will set our hero up nicely, as long as he plays a solo piano performance for token amusement. Did I mention that Caveman Rom was a prodigy from Juilliard? Yes, indeed, he was. And, oh, can he play to summon the angels and devils, often flapping about in the form of winged seraph dancers (one of the most painfully inflated visual flourishes Lemmons opts for).

Is Romulus delving into his own delusions, or is there a vast conspiracy at work here? Kasi Lemmons plays with whether we can trust our unreliable narrator, particularly when a major piece of evidence is introduced on videotape. He's already proven that his fragile grip on reality goes into hyperdrive when placed before the tube. Furthermore, he's known to spot raybeams, faceless men with guns, and ghostly figures from his past including one sharp tongued ex-wife (Tamara Tunie, Eve's Bayou) who hasn't aged a day since their stormy love affair died years ago -- another neat conceptual flourish that doesn't entirely become more than just a clever idea. Voices in his head whisper, "Stuyvesant! Stuyvesant!" It's catchy. People started muttering that name to themselves in the theater. Weird, huh? Life imitates art.

Samuel L. Jackson and Colm Feore have some beautifully played scenes together. Jackson's fishing for details in the murder case while nihilist Feore is happy to oblige with his ground zero philosophy. When Feore starts whipping out sadistic paintings of bruised and beaten angels, Jackson calls them pure emptiness. Feore takes it as a compliment. "That's what I like to hear, amigo!" Ha ha -- this "mistaken meanings" stuff kills me, especially when you don't know whether Jackson is gonna go nutso any moment. He's the bull in a china shop. There's also some "black man in rich white man's house" subtext that Lemmons acknowledges, not to mention some sultry Oreo sexual couplings that ignited tension in some audience members annoyed at seeing another brother get sucked into the arms of a white woman aroused by his exoticism. Lemmons bravely takes the dare.

Without disclosing the twists of this untrustworthy detective story, the question of whether it's all in Rom's head remains significantly more fascinating than the pedestrian Agatha Christie mechanizations and twists (though the whodunit may surprise you). The inner workings of the Caveman's clock trip him up nearly as much as they aid his quest, much to the frustration of his daughter and her long suffering chief who handles the crazy man with playful grace, a la Commissioner Gordon in Batman comics. Think about it.

Lemmons gets most of her stylistic trappings right without going too far into the baroque, though a little Gothic design goes a long way. Symbolism on the page, when translated into moving pictures, can be rendered predictable and absurd. These cover up the numerous slow spots inherent in the "mystery" structure, of which the bottom line is all too often, "Why should we care?" The sleuth manages to dig around until evidence sprouts up. Following those rhythms grows tiresome, and only the question of Rom's madness adds a much-needed tension. The conclusion wraps things up a touch too neatly for my taste, but the performances during that loaded confrontation scene almost overshadow the contrivances.

Yet I persist in begrudgingly admiring Kasi Lemmons for taking a subject matter most filmmakers (not just women) don't have the stomach for. The hero is flat-out-nuts, even if he plays a lovely piano. Even if he's a musical genius, he is messed up! He could snap at any time. There's no compromising the Caveman, not even through the addled, sympathetic frustration of his wife, his daughter, even his beleaguered suspects, damaged as they are. Lemmons keeps one foot in the realm of the Other, where anything is possible cinematically (credit to the versatile and imaginative color palette from Director of Photography Amy Vincent). As unpredictable as Romulus' temperament, The Caveman's Valentine is a game of leapfrog striding between the profound and the paltry. You love it when it's on, roll your eyes when it's off. How many movies can you say that for? How many? Huh, Stuvvesant? Huh? Huh?

Review published 03.15.2001.

For another opinion, read Rob Vaux's review.

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